July 28, 2019
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
I Corinthians 13
First, I want to explain the word in the title some of you don’t recognize. If you don’t recognize it, it’s because it’s a Greek word and you shouldn’t be expected to know Greek words. This is a word you aren’t going to hear very much unless you hang around church a lot.
It looks like the English word “agape”. As in, “Why is this guy holding his mouth agape?”
But it’s not pronounced “agape”. It’s pronounced “agape.” Spelled the same, but the meaning is different.
When we read today’s scripture, every time you heard the word “love”, you were hearing the English translation of the Greek word “agape.” We call I Corinthians 13 “the love chapter.” We could call it “the agape chapter.”
Agape is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love. This is the way God loves. This is usually not the way we love. Our love tends to be tinged with selfishness. But it’s the way God wants us to love. It’s the way we were created to love. Spiritual growth is really at its core growing in agape love.
There is so much in I Corinthians 13. Today I want to just zero in on part of one verse. Love “is not irritable; it doesn’t keep a record of complaints”(vs 5).
One reason we have a hard time loving the way God loves
is that we are easily irritated. And no wonder! Life is filled with irritations. Pop-up ads. Gnats. Allergies. The Department
of Motor Vehicles. Air conditioners that stop working in July. Traffic. Robo-calls. Long lines. Road construction. Bad drivers. Republicans. Democrats. Need I go on?
And of course far and away the number one irritation is other people. Even nice people. If you are around them long enough, they get irritating, too. The real achievement of the moon landing 50 years ago is that three really nice men could spend eight days living together in cramped quarters without killing each other.
But here’s the thing about irritability. It’s a mood. Which means we can’t blame the irritation. Take the irritation away, and we would find something else to be irritated about. As long as we are in an irritable mood. Irritations don’t make us irritated. We are the ones who choose to get irritated.
And we can choose something else. We can change our mood. Instead of thinking about that idiot who just cut you off in traffic, how about thinking about God? God who created this beautiful world, whose love is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional, who so loved this world that he became one of us in Jesus, who died on the cross for me, who forgives my sins, who offers me abundant life, whose eye is on the sparrow, who promises that surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. If that’s what I’m thinking about, that guy who cut me off in traffic is not going to irritate me nearly as much.
The greatest freedom of all is the freedom to decide what will occupy our minds. Nobody can take that away from you. You can have every other freedom taken away and you are still free to choose whether or not you will be irritable.
It’s been said that we live the age of outrage. But is it the age we live in, or is it the people we have become? Have we become people who are moody, negative, critical, and offended at the drop of a hat?
So here you are in line at your favorite store. There is somebody being helped ahead of you. It’s your turn next. But here’s what happens. The customer and the sales clerk are yucking it up. They are just having a great time kidding each other, exchanging witty comebacks, laughing, carrying on, like they are the only two people in the store. And your temperature is rising. You are about to drop on the floor whatever you were about to buy and walk out.
Or, same situation. You stand there patiently. (By the way, I Corinthians 13 also says that love is patient.) You think to yourself how good it is that this customer is taking the time to joke around with that overworked sales clerk. He’s probably had a hard day. Most people probably are in too big a hurry to make eye contact, a lot of them are rude, but here is someone actually treating him with warmth and dignity. Like a human being. What an inspiration!
No, I don’t claim to be the second person in this story. I am more likely to be the first. Actually, it’s been interesting observing myself since I’ve been working on this morning’s message. I never realized before what an irritable person I am capable of being! But I’m also realizing that it’s not the irritation that is to blame. It’s me. I’m the one who chooses whether I will let this little thing irritate me or not. It’s a matter of mood.
So how do we change moods? How do we become less irritated by the irritations of life? Is it a matter of holding our breath and trying real hard? No. It’s a matter of trying less hard and allowing God’s agape love to come in. And it’s a matter of seeing how important it is that we do so.
Irritability sounds like a little thing. But open that door even a crack and in will come other things. Bigger things. Uglier things. Like sarcasm. Like resentment. Like contempt. These are not little things. These are serious threats. Over time they will wreck marriages, damage children, destroy lives.
It’s not a matter of trying harder to be better people. When the problem is our mood, we have to come up with a more effective strategy. And guess what! It’s right here. Right in this same verse of scripture. Because immediately after it says that love is not irritable, it says, “[Love] does not keep a record ofcomplaints.” Isn’t that why we are so often in such a foul mood? Human beings by nature are record-keepers. And we keep extra meticulous records of our many complaints.
Our memory may not be the greatest any more, but boy we sure can remember that slight somebody gave us 15 years ago! We think about it and still feel a surge of moral outrage. Or maybe self-pity. And it almost feels good. We were in the right. They were in the wrong. We have these stories memorized and sometimes we even tell them to other people as if they care to hear them.
If we could remember Bible verses as well as we remember all the times we have been wronged, we would have the whole Bible memorized by now! It’s kind of like Pandora. This collection of our greatest complaints that we keep playing over and over and over again.
Why? A very wise man named Frederick Buechner said this.
Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor till the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
I wonder how many of you recognize the name Bill Buckner. He was our neighbor. He lived right here in Boise. He died on May 27. He was a major league baseball player. He had 2,715 lifetime base hits. Six less than Lou Gehrig. Sixty-one more than Ted Williams. But the first line of his obituary was about a grounder that went through his legs. It was 1986. The Boston Red Sox were on the verge of winning their first World Series since 1918. But they lost. And Red Sox fans blamed Bill Buckner.
I never met the man, but I felt like I knew him. His third grade teacher was a member of my church in Portland. She said he was one of the nicest kids she ever taught. She felt terrible about the way he was treated.
It was all so unfair. It was really ridiculous. He was hated. He was vilified. He was ridiculed. Bill Buckner had a legitimate complaint. He had every reason to keep a mental record of how horribly he had been treated. And to brood over that day and night for the rest of his life.
But he chose not to. By all accounts he was a prince of a man. He stayed active in baseball. He was the hitting coach for the Boise Hawks. His charitable work here in the Treasure Valley was extensive. Do a Google search on all the wonderful tributes that have poured in since his death.
A big moment for Bill Buckner came when he accepted an invitation to appear with Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He knew he would be the brunt of jokes in that episode, and he was. Several. But he was way past the time when that would bother him. The end of that episode is so classic, I have to play it here.
(VIDEO: Bill Buckner on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”)
Love does not keep a record of complaints. But love does keep records. Remember, we’re all record-keepers. We can’t help it. We remember things. Memory is a gift from God. But here’s the way God wants us to use that gift: remember not how we have been wronged, but how we have been blessed.
The same Paul who wrote “the agape chapter” also wrote this:
. . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious – if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise – think about these things (Philippians 4:8).
Love thinks excellent thoughts! Our greatest freedom is the freedom to decide what our minds will dwell upon.
I’m only speculating. All I know about Bill Buckner is second hand. But I think it’s reasonable to conclude that he was able to let all the abuse that was hurled his way roll off his back like water off the back of a duck because he chose to fill his mind with good thoughts. He kept a record of how he had been blessed, not how he had been wronged. One reason I think that was the case is because I know he was a Christian. Everyone says his faith in Jesus was at the center of his life. He was growing in agape love. So things that would irritate most people did not irritate him. At least not as much.
Life has its little irritations. And life has things we all have to face that are bigger than irritations. And harder. And heavier. But the rule still applies. We have the freedom to choose whether we will occupy our minds with complaints or with praise.
There’s an old story often shared in recovery groups. A bunch of addicts are on board the boat that will bring them to the hope and freedom and sanity they are looking for. But there is this woman named Mary who missed the boat. She got to the dock late. It’s the story of her life.
Everyone on the boat calls out to Mary, encouraging her to dive in and swim out to them. The boat is not far away. So she does. She’s an excellent swimmer, but it’s immediately apparent that she is in serious trouble. She is struggling to stay afloat. Why? Everybody on the boat can see that she is holding onto this big rock. No wonder she can’t swim!
They all yell at the top of their lungs, “Drop the rock! Mary, drop the rock!” But she doesn’t want to.
The rock is all her resentments. All her bitterness. All the terrible things people have said and done. The rock is her pride. It is her stubbornness. It is her superiority over those who have wronged her. It is her excuse for her miserable life. How can she drop the rock? But if she doesn’t, she drowns. So she drops the rock.
And now she is free! She swims to the boat and climbs on board. Everybody cheers!
Then a man shows up at the dock. He jumps into the water and starts swimming, but he is going down. And this time it is Mary who yells, “Drop the rock! Drop the rock!”
Do you have a rock you need to drop? It’s making you irritable. It’s making you bitter. It’s making you miserable. It’s keeping you from loving as God loves you.
It seems every book I read is my new favorite book. There are a lot of great books out there. Rachel Fabbi told me I had to read Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassionby Greg Boyle and I see why. Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest whose mission is gang intervention and rehabilitation in East Los Angeles.
One day he was trying to convey the concept of agape love to some boys everyone else has written off as incorrigible. He asks them a question. What is the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.
One of them said, “Well, sympathy is when your homie’s mom dies and you go up to him and say, ‘Sorry to hear about your moms.'”
Another one decided he would give a shot at defining empathy. He said, “Yeah, well, empathy is when your homie’s mom dies and you say, “Sorry ’bout your moms. My moms died six months ago. I feel ya, dog.'”
“Excellent,” said the priest. “But what about compassion? What does compassion mean?”
Silence. For a long time. Finally one of the older ones raised a finger tentatively. He was maybe 25.
“Well now,” he began. All eyes were staring at him. He was shaking his head. “Compassion – that’s sumthin’ altogether different.”
He pondered what he would say next.
“Cause, that’s what Jesus did. I mean, compassion . . . IS . . . God” (page 62).
He got that right. Love is God. And God is love. Agape love. Selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love. It’s not irritable. It keeps no record of complaints. But it remembers that we are loved, even though we don’t deserve it. And it loves others in that same way.
Help us God to change our mood. From irritability. From letting little things become big things. From letting big things become all we think about. Help us to think about you. Your love. Your goodness. Your grace. Our blessings, that outnumber by far anything we might ever have to complain about. May those who meet us this week meet someone in love with you, in love with life, in love with people, even the irritating ones. Because love, agape love, is really what it’s all about. To know your love, to grow in your love, and to share your love with others. Through Christ, Amen.